HOLLYWOOD – It was an emotional evening at the Egyptian Theatre Wednesday night as “Still Alice” finally came “home.”
Co-directors and husbands Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland are longtime Los Angelinos and the latter remarked how both men had spent many nights watching films in this same venue, which is the Hollywood home of the American Cinematheque. More importantly, this AFI Fest screening afforded Glatzer, who is in advance stages of ALS, to finally see the movie on the big screen with an audience. He missed the amazing reception at the Toronto Film Festival. He missed the Rome Film Festival. He missed the Hamptons Film Festival. He was not going to miss seeing “Still Alice” in his hometown.
Based on Lisa Genova's bestselling novel, “Alice” chronicles the heartbreaking progression of early on set Alzheimer's disease for Dr. Alice Howard (Julianne Moore), a 50-year-old accomplished Columbia University professor and mother of three grown children. While she struggles to not “lose herself” to the disease, her family (played by Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Hunter Parish and Kate Bosworth) all react to her condition in different ways.
Just as it did at the TIFF world premiere, “Still Alice” elicited many tears and an almost shell-shocked reaction from many in the audience. That, along with the subject matter and Glatzer's beaming presence, resulted in a somewhat non-traditional Q&A afterward. Glatzer, Westmoreland, Moore, Stewart and producers James Brown and Maria Shriver (yes, that Maria Shriver) all spoke at great length about their passion for the film. This wasn't a self-congratulatory discussion meant to hype Moore's frontrunner status in the Best Actress race. No, this was a passionate call to arms about Alzheimer's and the personal connection everyone on the podium has with the disease. Frankly, the only way to do it just is to chronicle the night in the panel's own insightful words.
“Wash went out to face the New York winter months without me. He did pre-production on the ground and I consulted via email. By the time I went out my arms were pretty much gone, but I could still type with one finger on the iPad. And type I did on set every day. I felt very much heard by everyone and it's so important if you are struggling with a disease like this to feel you still matter. It's ironic that in my deteriorated state I'd be able to make a film that was creatively everything I'd ever wished for.”
– Richard Glatzer, co-director through his electronic voice machine
“What I think is so compelling about this movie for me is that it's really about who we are, essentially. There is a reason it's called 'Still Alice.' In the face of anything affecting your life in this way, who are you essentially? In the face of a terrible disease, who are you to your loved ones, your children, your husband, your job? Who are you to the world? It's not that someone disappears. I think it's a misnomer that someone with Alzheimer's goes away. The person is there, they are just there in different capacities. How do you express that? I think it's interesting in terms of our relationship with Richard and Wash that they were in a somewhat similar situation. The interesting thing about communicating with Richard is that what he is going through kind of disappeared after awhile because you were still communicating with the person who is there. Oddly it wasn't an issue. So, in a way, it made it very clear to me what was the defining issue of the film.”
– Julianne Moore
“The day Julianne signed on – she was the person we always imagined should play this role. She was the person [novelist] Lisa Genova always imagined. At that point when Julie said yes to the project I think for me, I kind of said a little thanks to the universe of gratitude. If this film had never happened I felt that really mattered.”
– Sam Brown, producer who took a bank loan out to keep the project going after losing his day job.
“Everything to do with her character Julianne had a big say in. We wanted her to feel fully in the know when we were hiring, actors we were casting and so on. We really came to trust each there this way. Julianne always had notes when we were firming up the next week's scene. We'd text thoughts back and forth. We thought of her as a full creative partner in the process. More importantly, Julianne was amazingly receptive to the terrible jokes I'd make on my iPad. What a joy it was to see her on set. What a joy and inspiration.”
– Richard Glatzer, co-director and co-screenwriter
“I met Lisa when she brought her book to The Women's Conference several years ago, so for me this is kind of coming full circle, to see these incredible actors bring this story to life under the hands of such talented directors and producers. My hope is that it will touch people of all ages and they will understand this idea in a new way. My dad died of Alzheimer's and it's affecting people every 90 seconds in this country. There is $6 billion allotted to AIDS and to cancer but there is only $600 million to trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's. And millions and millions of families are going through what we saw in this movie. My hope, having done a lot in this field through the news business, through books, through HBO documentaries, is that this film being brought to life by these incredible actors does something we haven't been able to do, which is to put it into the mainstream, to make young people become interested in this disease, because it will affect their parents and it's affecting women disproportionally at a very young age. I'm hoping people will see the love in this movie. They will understand the loving family and understand it's a disease that's affecting millions and millions of people and we can do better. We can find a cure, otherwise we will see this play out in every room and every country around the world. I'm hoping these actors and directors and writers will be able to do something we haven't been able to do in this fight, to find a cure for Alzheimer's. So I have high expectations for this film and the message of it.”
– Maria Shriver, executive producer
“I think a common sentiment is that you hear about someone with Alzheimer's and instantly you think, 'Oh, wow. That must be so hard for the family.' And I don't want to discredit that in any way. Absolutely, it's atrocious, it's sicking. It's hard for me to talk about without feeling that I'm trivializing it by using the wrong words. What I love about this movie is that it's about a family that sort of discovers in losing someone, you discover why this pillar exists. If she hadn't started to step out of this light you might never really blink your eyes to focus on her. I play someone who, absolutely, as we all do, take for granted certain things that seem so apparently a natural part of life. And then as soon as those things start to descend into darkness it's sort of…for everyone it doesn't speak to how good a person Lydia is, or maybe some people here think Alex's character was not as strong. To polarize and define those things so clearly, it's prejudice. It's personally informed and of course we're all going to have certain opinions and feelings that are so assigned to us because of who we are. But, really, this movie just makes you go, 'Oh my God. I should really just open my eyes clearly to things that are in front of me every single day.'”
– Kristen Stewart, who plays Alice's daughter Lydia
[To Stewart] “I wonder in the last scenes when you're reading to your mother and they are just there, the two of them, and they talk about love. I remember siting with my own father outside when he had Alzheimer's and you could hear the traffic going by. And he said, 'Listen to the water.' And I said, 'No, that's traffic.' And he said, 'No, I hear water.' I said, 'No, no, no. You hear traffic.' And he said, 'I hear water and it's beautiful.' It was a moment, I was like, 'Oh, wow daddy. I hear the water too. And it's beautiful.' And you just go with it. And it's the same thing. It's just people with Alzheimer's, like Kristen said, it's terrible and you go through all the ups and downs. One of the things I always say is never judge a family in how they deal with this disease, because you never know how you will deal with it. People come in, people come out, but that moment crystallized what the film is about. It's about family. It's about love. And people with Alzheimer's bring you down out of the traffic, out of the noise to the moments in life. The moment that is happening right here. Right now. So you can find beauty in a really incredible situation.”
– Maria Shriver
“I think representing something authentically that I hadn't actually experienced? As actors we make things up all the time. We can say, 'Oh, if I were this person I would do this or I would do that.' We have all this freedom. But in this case there are certain behaviors I really needed to understand and in my research I found that people were extraordinarily generous in imparting their experiences to people who were dealing with the disease personally as a patient and people we were dealing with as the caregivers or clinicians or researchers. Everyone was very, very anxious that I have the information. There is not a whole lot known about it. We are still searching for a cure, we still don't have a lot of information, so everyone wanted to share their experience with me. The one thing I said to Rich and Wash over and over again, because we would have these Skype calls when we'd go over the script, is that I didn't want to perform any behavior I hadn't actually observed. So everything you see in the movie is something I saw in various support groups. Some of the language is actually taken from some of the women I spoke to. That idea of not being able to find themselves in stuff, and that was from somebody who was in the first year of their diagnosis. All of the behaviors you see later, the physicalizations and stuff are things I saw with patients who were more declined. That was the hardest part. Richard and Wash would be great when I said, 'No, no, no! I can't do this because I didn't see that.' And so I tried to represent it in that way.”
– Julianne Moore
[For more on “Still Alice,” check out Julianne Moore's comments to HitFix during the London press day for “Mockingjay” in the video at the top of this post.]
“Still Alice” is playing in Los Angeles for an Oscar qualifying run December 5 (go see it!). It then opens in New York and Los Angeles on Jan. 16.